On March 10, 1997, Rodney Patrick McNeal went home during his lunch break, around 12:30 p.m., to take his wife, Debra, to a doctor’s appointment.
Instead, the San Bernardino County probation officer found Debra, who was six months pregnant, dead in their bathtub. Submerged in water, she’d been beaten and stabbed before being strangled to death. The words “Nigger Lover” were written on the mirror (Debra McNeal was a Native American), and the house had been ransacked, with several firearms stolen.
Patrick and Debra’s marriage had been rocky at times, and police visited their home following domestic disputes at least twice in the months leading up to Debra’s death. According to a 2009 court document, a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff went to their residence in December 1996 after a domestic-disturbance call. Patrick and Debra appeared upset at each other, but no arrest was made, although two handguns were taken for safekeeping. In January 1997, a deputy responded to another domestic disturbance, after Patrick reportedly took Debra’s purse to prevent her from leaving.
Tension was high on the day of the murder, too. According to Debra’s son, Marcus Frison, the day before, Debra got upset with Patrick regarding some leftover pizza, and she took a knife to the family’s sofa. On March 10, Debra decided it was time to seek some professional help and called Kaiser Permanente to schedule a counseling appointment. On that day, she and Patrick spoke on the phone three times. They discussed the appointment, and apparently had an argument over money, although Patrick’s co-workers never heard him with a loud or hostile tone of voice.
The last known person to see Debra McNeal alive was a friend, Terrylyn Walker, who went to visit Debra around 9:15 a.m. At 10 a.m., while Debra was on the phone with Kaiser, someone she apparently knew entered the home, according to the Kaiser clerk.
Patrick McNeal got to his office somewhere between 7:30 and 8 a.m. that morning, and from 10 a.m. to noon, he met with clients. Patrick’s computer records show him working on a report shortly before noon; records also show he made a phone call to Debra around that time to find out the location of her appointment. The call was not answered.
Two of Patrick’s co-workers rode in an elevator with him at approximately 12:10 to 12:15 p.m. He then made the 2 1/2-minute walk through the parking lot to his car, and the eight-minute drive to their home.
Police arrived on the scene, after Patrick McNeal called 911, at 12:32 p.m.
There was no forced entry into the McNeal residence. There was a blood trail leading from the master living room through an entryway, into the kitchen and then into the master bedroom. The waterbed was punctured and leaking water, and there was an odor of bleach and/or other cleaning products in the master bedroom and bathroom. A bloody footprint on the carpet came from a dress shoe that did not match any of Patrick McNeal’s shoes. Hairs and fibers on Debra’s body also did not match anything from Patrick.
Yet in 2000, Rodney Patrick McNeal was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. He’s been in prison ever since—and his case has captured the attention of the California Innocence Project.
Since it was founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project, a clinical program at California Western School of Law in San Diego, has helped free 30 wrongfully convicted inmates, and it currently is working on the cases of 13 people who remain behind bars, including that of Patrick McNeal.
“(Debra McNeal) was strangled, beaten, stabbed and thrown in the tub,” said Raquel Cohen (pictured right), an attorney representing McNeal with the California Innocence Project. “For years, all the evidence has shown the timeline doesn’t add up giving Patrick enough time to commit this crime. He still got convicted.”
Cohen said the domestic disputes between the McNeals helped the prosecution make their case against Patrick.
“They had some marital problems and some domestic-disturbance calls, but nothing that was too serious,” Cohen said. “They had arguments resulting in the police saying, ‘Hey, you guys need to calm down.’ Juries are unpredictable; Kim Long’s case was also very similar, where they attack the character of the defendant and say, ‘They are a very violent person, and there’s only one person who could have committed the crime,’ and (prosecutors) don’t have any other suspects.”
Kimberly Long is a California Innocence Project success story. The Independentfirst covered her case back in 2015; she was convicted of the 2003 murder of her boyfriend, Oswaldo “Ozzy” Conde, in Corona. In 2016, a Riverside County Superior Court judge reversed her conviction—which, like McNeal’s conviction, was largely based on the couple’s history of domestic strife.
“That’s really the evidence they had against him during his trial,” Cohen said about the McNeal case. “There was a bad relationship, and he found the body. But there’s a timeline issue, and it becomes, ‘Where were you at what time?’ Patrick had a lot of hard evidence—the last time he modified a document on a computer, and co-workers riding down (with him) in an elevator. The worst-case scenario has a neighbor placing him at home at 12:15 p.m.—and that is the worst case for him and best case for the prosecution. That’s not enough time for him to commit the crime, clean up—and (Patrick McNeal) had no blood or bleach on him—and then call the police.
“It just doesn’t add up.”
The California Innocence Project has put forward another suspect in the murder of Debra McNeal—Patrick McNeal’s half-brother, Jeffrey Todd West.
“A few people have come forward saying that (West) confessed to the crime,” Cohen said. “He was a very bad person. He had killed other people and served time for it in Nevada; I believe he might be locked up somewhere right now. He has a history of choking people. He poured gas on his ex-wife, and there are chemicals involved in this case. … He told people that he killed Debra after it happened, because he was worried about Patrick’s future. We presented that to the court … and unfortunately, they found the witnesses were unreliable for a number of reasons.”
In 2005, West pleaded guilty to a double-homicide in Nevada. Both West’s ex-wife, Janice Williams, and Charlotte Lazzie, an ex-girlfriend, testified regarding West’s violent nature. Ebony Grant, the half-sister of both Patrick McNeal and West, also talked about violent attacks by West, including an incident during which she was choked. Grant said West told her a week before the murders of Debra McNeal and her unborn child that he believed Debra was destroying all of his stuff, and that he would “kill the bitch”; according to the California Innocence Project’s website, West also confessed to Grant after the murder. Cary McGill, a co-worker of West, said that West confessed the murder to him, stating that Debra was ruining Patrick’s future and that he had to “handle the bitch.”
However, the court denied all of this new evidence—and Patrick McNeal remains behind bars.
“We are kind of at a roadblock, but we’re still investigating whether or not West told other people who might be more credible, or whether or not West will confess—which would be ideal, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” Cohen said.
“There were a lot of issues at the evidentiary hearing with the witnesses who said West confessed, (whom) the judge found not to be credible. For instance, Cary McGill, who came forward saying that West had confessed to him, failed to appear on the first day; he had some issues with work and didn’t appear. When he showed up to testify, the court threw him in jail. When he got on the stand, he was in custody and was pissed—he tried to help somebody and ended up with a failure to appear (charge). The court found him not credible because his demeanor was just irritated.
“There were a lot of bad things that happened at that hearing that turned the case to deny the petition and keep Patrick in prison.”
The Independent was given about 10 minutes to talk via phone to Patrick McNeal, who is currently serving his sentence of 30 years to life at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. During the phone call, he expressed extreme frustration with his conviction.
“It’s so hard for me to believe at times,” McNeal said. “I told them during the interview that I made phone calls that day that were on the phone record, and I walked out with other probation officers from my job. I can’t make all that stuff up. … My phone-call records make it impossible for me to be at the murder, along with the probation officer I walked out with. They were ignored, or there were excuses made for phone records.”
McNeal said his attorney failed to adequately defend him during his original trial.
“He told me that he was going to question them on the timeline and do all of this and that. He didn’t do anything that he told me that he was going to do and just said, ‘The defense rests,’” McNeal said. “When I asked him about that, he said, ‘Oh, well, that’s just how I like to do my cases, and there’s no need for me to do it. The prosecution didn’t present their case.’ I was completely blown away.
“By that time, it was too late.”
Cohen said that even though McNeal’s case is currently at a standstill, they remain hopeful that he could be freed one day soon.
“He’s very optimistic; he checks in on his case regularly, and he knows that we’re sort of at a dead end,” Cohen said about McNeal. “We have a clemency petition pending with the governor, where we’re hoping (Gov. Gavin Newsom) sees this evidence and commutes his sentence or grants him a pardon. That’s one big hope he has going forward. Obviously, we talk about other ways we can break this case open. But … we all know West is very dangerous, so we’re all very cautious about it, and we’re hoping there are other people who will come forward. All of our (main) hope right now is with our governor’s office, and we’re hoping the new governor will take action on this and see there’s no way for (McNeal) to have committed this crime.”
Patrick McNeal said he wants more than just his release from prison.
“Getting out is, of course, the No. 1 goal, but I wouldn’t be satisfied just by getting out,” he said. “I can’t believe that a reasonable person would look at the case with all of the phone calls and the blood evidence (and think I did it). If you put everything together along with the fact no one ever said that I was the one who did this, along with where I worked as a probation officer—I would have to have had a co-conspirator in the Probation Department for someone to make phone calls from my office to my home and not tell the police about it—it’s like nothing makes any sense. Would I really tell a fellow probation officer, ‘Hey, I’m going to go kill my wife. Just in case the police come after me, can you make these phone calls from my office?’”
For more information, visit californiainnocenceproject.org.